The Shock and Awe of 2013: “Knowing What We Know Now. . .”

“Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion of Iraq?” For my column this week, I figured, what the heck, I’m going to say “yes.”

I say “yes” and I didn’t even support the invasion at the time – I point that out here not to satisfy that preposterous requisite of political-hygiene bona fides that one is required to display before entering any conversation about Shock and Awe. I do so to draw attention to just how ridiculous the question is. For starters.

I don’t say “yes” in the way that Charles Krauthammer does, to argue that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 ended in “victory,” that “Bush bequeathed to Obama a success,” which Obama then squandered. Which actually isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds.

I say “yes” partly to toy with the idea: “Knowing what we know now” back in 2003 would mean knowing in advance the consequences of every calamitous decision that was to come. . . To be blessed with such magical powers of clairvoyance would have been to know which decisions not to make, from the small ones – don’t send a column of Humvees down that road, it’s mined with IEDs – to the big ones – hey, let’s not put the 320th Military Police Battalion in charge of that prison at Abu Ghraib. Even the really big mistakes could have been foreseen and avoided. 

But I say “yes” mainly to point out that the anti-interventionists who prevailed with the rise of Barack Obama and David Cameron and Angela Merkel have absolutely nothing to crow about.

“Knowing what we know now” about Iraq in 2003, what do we do? We trade the fundamental human rights of the Iranian people for the shambles of a nuclear deal with the ayatollahs. We confront the Islamic State’s rampaging barbarism with a small, mostly air-power coalition that has no intention of victory. We allow Bashar Assad, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force and Hezbollah to wage war on the Syrian people. Total cost to date: Afghanistan survives by the skin of its teeth. Libya no longer exists. Iraq is a failed state in all but name. Khomeinist Iran has never been so confidently ambitious. In Syria alone: more than 225,000 dead, nearly 10 million homeless, three million refugees, and a reconstruction bill the World Bank last year pegged at $200 billion and counting.

All that, too, is “what we know now,” so a little less bragging, please. Besides, foaming at the mouth about yesteryear’s shadowy neoconservatives is unbecoming at the best of times.

There’s also this formula demanded by the revisionist orthodoxy: Bu$h Lied = People Died. It’s rubbish. You want lies about 9-11, Iraq and everything after? I nominate the entire IMDb of American docu-huckster Michael Moore. I had a go at him a while back here. But this is way better, here.

Another ubiquitous falsehood runs along the lines that Libya’s current nightmares are the direct result of NATO’s air-power intervention in defence of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising against the decrepit and blood-soaked Gaddafi regime. To believe that, you will have to avert your gaze from the truth that Libya’s democratic dreams were crushed only after the fact, when the NATO countries betrayed and abandoned the Libyan revolution “because no one wanted to participate in an enterprise that might appear neocolonial.”

The distortion that has made perhaps the greatest mischief in the work of coming to a clear understanding of Shock and Awe is the boast (what else to call it?) that the Euro-American “anti-war” paradigm that is now ascendant and dominant in the NATO capitals is genuinely “progressive.” It isn’t. It’s narcissism in the place where hard-headed liberal-democratic internationalism should be. It’s a substitution for robust left-wing analysis and activism. It isn’t even legitimately anti-war. The brave Syrian revolutionary Yassin Al-Haq Saleh puts it this way:

I am afraid that it is too late for the leftists in the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle.What I always found astonishing in this regard is that mainstream Western leftists know almost nothing about Syria, its society, its regime, its people, its political economy, its contemporary history. . . Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate. So they do not really need to know about us. . . We, rank-and-file Syrians, refugees, women, students, intellectuals, human rights activists, political prisoners … do not exist.

That was true and remains true in the case of the “Left” and Afghanistan as well. It’s fair enough to claim that in its prosecution of Shock and Awe and everything afterwards the Bush administration made an unpardonable hash of it. It’s also fair to claim that we cannot really know whether things would have been better or worse had Saddam Hussein been allowed to remain unmolested in Baghdad. War is never “the answer.” But if you claim that the world would be better now had we left Afghanistan in the clutches of Mullah Omar’s Talibs and his international jihadist accomplices, there must be something seriously wrong with you. Whatever it is, all the post-colonial studies degrees in the world won’t cure it.

“We could play this game all day,” my chum Michael Totten points out in a very kind response to my column in World Affairs Journal. Michael sets out a few “what would you do back then knowing what you know now” games, this way: “Why not ask the same question about Syria? Or the wars on drugs and poverty. The decision to build public housing blocks in Cabrini-Green. Staying out of World War II until after the Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Putting New Orleans below sea level. Building a house where ‘we now know’ an F-5 tornado would touch down five years later. Electing George W. Bush president. Electing Barack Obama president. Picking Sarah Palin as a running mate. Buying a lottery ticket that ‘we now know’ was a bust.”

Ishmael N. Daro played the game a few days ago in the National Post to splendidly amusing effect, in the form of the Let’s Go Back In Time and Kill Hitler game: “The biggest hurdle to overcome would be the paradoxes inherent in changing the past. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Grandfather Paradox, which posits that going back in time to kill your own grandfather would prevent your own birth, thereby making it impossible for you to kill your grandfather. But there’s also a Killing Hitler paradox, in which your decision to snuff out little Adolf’s life in the crib would erase your own motivation for travelling back in time to kill him. There’s also a good chance we’re already past the point of no return. . .”

All of which is fun and games, but it’s a bit dreary, so here’s the Ottawa boy Norm MacDonald to take it out:



About Terry Glavin

Terry Glavin has worked as a reporter, columnist and editor for a variety of newspapers. His assignments in recent years have taken him to Afghanistan, Israel, the Russian Far East, the Eastern Himalayas, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Geneva, China and Central America. He is the author of seven books and the co-author of three. His books have been published in Canada, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom. He has won more than a dozen literary and journalism awards, including the Hubert Evans Prize and several National Magazine Awards, and the B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. Terry's most recent book is Come From the Shadows - The Long and Lonely Struggle For Peace in Afghanistan.
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1 Response to The Shock and Awe of 2013: “Knowing What We Know Now. . .”

  1. Joanne says:

    I’ve only just begun to read your piece on Michael Moore, which looks very interesting. I’ll have to resume when I have the time (I’m in a work crunch right now). But I already saw two points that could be made:

    1. I’ve read (sorry, no source readily available) that Moore interviewed Smith at least twice, one brief interview and one longer one.

    2. That he didn’t grow up in Flint is a major point. I didn’t know that the suburb was called “Davison,” but I read in several places that it is a middle-class suburb of Flint, not a depressed working-class town. So this fact does undermine Moore’s account of himself as having working class origins.


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